Ministers are pushing ahead with controversial plans to merge two disability benefit assessments into one, despite concerns raised by disabled campaigners.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) wants to offer a single face-to-face assessment – with the agreement of the claimant – that would replace and merge the current work capability assessment (WCA) and the assessment for personal independence payment (PIP).
A parliamentary petition calling on DWP to abandon the plans was signed by more than 7,000 people earlier this year.
But the new work and pensions secretary, Therese Coffey, mentioned the proposals as she gave evidence for the first time yesterday (Wednesday) in front of the Commons work and pensions select committee.
In an evidence session marked by apparent frustration and even anger from some opposition MPs, Coffey (pictured) also insisted that – despite repeated and serious concerns raised by disabled activists, campaigners, charities and MPs – the new universal credit (UC) benefit system was “broadly working well”.
And she claimed that the five-week wait for a first payment for new claimants – and the system of advance payments for those in need, which must then be repaid out of future monthly payments – “does work”.
Liberal Democrat MP Heidi Allen told her: “Imagine living on such a tiny amount of money that it is not enough to live on and then you have to pay some of it back.
“How can that work?”
But Coffey said: “For those people who are claiming universal credit for the first time, I do think the advance works.”
Coffey’s confidence came just days after a fringe meeting at the Tory party conference heard from the boss of a local homeless charity how UC was causing early deaths, addiction, mental distress and suicides, and that the “killer” for her clients was the five-week wait for a first payment.
Coffey also told the committee that there had been a “drop in satisfaction” with DWP among disabled people.
She said that a single assessment would be an “important part” of improving the experience of disabled claimants, “as long as we can make sure that customers actually want that to happen and that we have people adequately trained on that”.
She stressed that the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, was “very keen to make sure it is absolutely the decision of the person going through the process about whether to have one or two assessments”.
Tomlinson himself had appeared to dismiss the idea of a single assessment in April, when he told MPs that there had been “confusion” over the government’s plans, which he said would merely offer a “very few people” the chance to have both their PIP assessment and their WCA on the same day.
But Coffey told the committee that Tomlinson was “very much engaged in trying to make [a single assessment] happen”.
And John-Paul Marks, DWP’s director general for work and health services, told MPs that the plan was to offer disabled people a single, joint assessment.
He said: “We recognise that a PIP assessment is about independent living and the employment and support allowance assessment is about fitness for work and these are not the same thing, so we have got to be careful about understanding how this would improve customer experience.
“Would it improve trust, would it improve engagement, would it make it easier for people?
“If we can do the feasibility and show that’s true, then it is a helpful improvement.”
But he said that some people might want to continue to have separate assessments.
He said that “trying to merge those two things into a single face-to-face contact might work for some people but it might not work for everyone so that’s why we do want to be cautious and make sure get it right and base it on evidence”.
Coffey also heard a claim from Labour MP Neil Coyle that ministers had decided that those disabled people previously receiving enhanced disability premium (EDP) on top of benefits such as employment and support allowance (ESA) would be “deliberately made worse off under universal credit”.
He pointed to a court ruling in January that found DWP had acted unlawfully in how it treated recipients of disability-related premiums when they were moved onto UC.
But Coyle said that the “transitional protections” now agreed by DWP would only help those who had been receiving SDP and not those who had only received EDP.
He said there were about 100,000 disabled people receiving SDP, compared with 900,000 receiving EDP and he suggested DWP was “deliberately” targeting compensation at the smaller group and was in effect saying that the 900,000 would be “deliberately made worse off under universal credit”.
Marks told Coyle: “To be honest, that is a choice that has been made.”
He told Coyle that ministers had decided to pay more to those disabled people who were not expected to work, who were previously in the support group of ESA and were now in the new limited capability for work-related activity group of UC.
He said this group would on average be £100-a-month better off under UC.
He added: “So when decisions were made by previous ministers – with advice – it was about how do you get the right choices with what’s available, given the resources and the choices that have to be made.
“Every choice has to be around support for vulnerable people and incentives for work and fairness for the taxpayer and so that is the balance that has been struck on SDP.”
Asked if all those on EDP would be worse off when they move onto UC, a DWP spokesperson told Disability News Service this morning: “We are committed to ensuring that everybody receives the support they need.
“The severe disability premium and the enhanced disability premium are different premiums with different qualifying conditions.
“Many people transferring from enhanced disability premium are better off under universal credit.
“Transitional payments introduced for those claimants who were receiving the severe disability premium recognise their very specific circumstances.”
DWP has always admitted there would be winners and losers among disabled people as it gradually introduced its delayed and much-criticised new UC system, while it claims that any savings would be reinvested into supporting those it calls “the most severely disabled”.
But it has repeatedly refused to provide clear details of how UC is likely to affect different groups of disabled people, particularly those currently receiving the various disability-related premiums.
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